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The Representation of Language & Cultural Identity in U.S. Picture Books, A Series (5)

In this final post of our series highlighting the representation of diverse languages and cultures in picture books, DBF intern and MLIS graduate student Kat Wyly examines how essential it is to include global titles in translation in order to achieve broad representation in collections. The series highlights the Diverse BookFinder (DBF), not only as a great tool for educators, librarians, and parents, but as an invaluable space where new and important inquiries about racial and cultural representation in children's books can be asked, investigated, and shared. As a comprehensive and continually growing digital collection -- painstakingly coded by a team of trained undergraduate students and graduate interns -- the DBF is a rich resource for both public scholarship and academic research & teaching. This series offers multiple exciting examples of the kinds of important inquiries that can arise when mining the DBF's publicly-accessible data.  ~ Dr. Andrea Breau is a feminist youth studies scholar who received her Ph.D. in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from The Ohio State University in 2018. She served as Project Coordinator for the Diverse BookFinder from 2018 - 2020 and now sits on our Advisory Council.

Picture Books in Translation: Uncovering a Key Component of Diverse Collections 

Kat is a graduate student in the MLIS program at University of Washington and a former DBF intern. She is currently completing her MLIS final project with DBF on asynchronous teaching and learning materials. A former elementary educator, she has experience building classroom libraries and is passionate about expanding how we think of diverse collections. She loves libraries as informal learning spaces that can prioritize co-creating with communities!

Less than 3% of books published in the United States are works in translation, as cited by University of Rochester’s Three Percent Initiative. The number of picture books in translation are even fewer. Unsure why picture books in translation are crucial components of diverse collections? Unable to find selections from a range of authors and languages? Read on!

While it is crucial to acknowledge the diversity of authorship and experience expressed through narratives originally written in English, reading translated titles provides a novel perspective that centers, and simultaneously de-centers through translation, language as a gateway to information. Authors routinely write in their native language and without translations, many works from all over the world do not circulate internationally. Reading these global texts is one way to engage with stories that offer representation and interpretation beyond our own lived experiences and biases.

When applying this already disproportionate number to the children’s literature scene, this leaves a substantial gap to be filled in identifying access points to children’s titles, including BIPOC representation. Picture books in translation are key in achieving this goal. It is not possible to have a comprehensive collection without examining books in it that counter Anglo-centrism and reflect global experiences.

Corinne Duyvis coined the term #ownvoices to represent books with diverse characters written by authors within that diverse identity. Although it is crucial to acknowledge that marginalized folks are not monoliths and experiences differ from person to person, using this hashtag has provided an invaluable lens for building intentional collections. To support this goal of promoting #ownvoices texts, books written in languages besides English must be examined. David Jacobson’s research using data from University of Wisconsin’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center confirms that there are further discrepancies among already low translation rates when comparing English translations of European children’s books to Asian children’s books. He notes that books from France constitute 27% of translations while books from China represent only 1%. Imagine the number of countries that have even lower statistics. Without children’s literature in translation, it is not possible to access many #ownvoices books that are critical reads for families, schools, and libraries. We must advocate for books in translation from a wider range of countries and languages, as well as support publishers who collaborate with global authors, to shift these statistics. 

Translated texts, especially picture books, also present a unique opportunity for discussion. Although translation has the natural potential to shift an author’s original message and storyline, considering the identity of translators and the relationship between authors and translators mitigates these factors. Illustrations contribute just as much as text in picture books and provide a meaningful way to engage with stories, with or without translations. 

There are many resources, including awards, databases, and publishers, that promote picture books in translation. Here are a few starting points for the latest updates on children’s books in translation:

Mildred L. Batchelder Award

The Mildred L. Batchelder Award is an American Library Association honor given to an American publisher for a phenomenal children’s book translated into English. In recent years, standout picture books that feature BIPOC characters include Lee Uk-bae’s When Spring Comes to the DMZ (Korean), Raphaële Frier’s Malala: Activist for Girls’ Education (French), Taro Gomi’s Over the Ocean (Japanese), and Suzhen Fang’s Grandma Lives in a Perfume Village (Chinese).

When Spring Comes to the DMZ by Lee Uk-bae

Korea's demilitarized zone has become an amazing accidental nature preserve that gives hope for a brighter future for a divided land. This unique picture book invites young readers into the natural beauty of the DMZ, where salmon, spotted seals, and mountain goats freely follow the seasons and raise their families in this 2.5-mile-wide, 150-mile-long corridor where no human may tread. But the vivid seasonal flora and fauna are framed by ever-present rusty razor wire, warning signs, and locked gates--and regularly interrupted by military exercises that continue decades after a 1953 ceasefire in the Korean War established the DMZ.

Grandma lives in a perfume village


by Suzhen Fang and Sonja Danowski

Xiao Le's grandmother lives in a faraway village. A visit with Grandma is always a special event, but this time she is frail. With encouragement from his mom, Xiao Le plays with and helps Grandma. When Grandma dies shortly thereafter, Xiao Le comforts his mom--reminding her that when it rains, Grandma is washing her clothes in the sky ... and that although the Perfume Village in heaven cannot be reached by train, it can be accessed by the heart. Fang Suzhen's moving story, with stunning illustrations by Sonja Danowski, is a powerful reminder that love transcends all.--Publisher's web site

Beautiful Life

White Ravens Database

The White Ravens Database from the International Youth Library maintains a collection of children’s literature from all over the world. Although not all books in translation, the website allows English speakers to search children’s literature according to language, country, subject, and publisher. There are short summaries, key themes, citation information, and cover illustrations for each featured book.

Publishers of Books in Translation

Based in both San Francisco and New Zealand, Blue Dot Kid’s Press publishes children’s books, some in translation, that offer perspectives on nature, social-emotional learning, and global citizenship. Picture books in translation include Susana Gomez Redóndo’s The Day Saida Arrived (Arabic) and Sepideh Sarihi’s My Favorite Memories (German).

The Day Saida Arrived


by Susana Gómez Redondo and Sonja Wimmer

"Two girls forge a forever-friendship by learning each other’s language. The Day Saida Arrived demonstrates the power of language to build bonds beyond borders. What happens when a new friend arrives who doesn’t speak your language? A young girl searches for the words to help her friend feel welcome and happy in her new home, and along the way learns about differences and similarities in countries and words. The two forge a strong bond while they each learn the other’s language, exploring the world around them. A joyous, lyrical text—including English translations and pronunciations and the complete Arabic alphabet—offers an accessible, fresh approach to talking about immigration. Paired with lushly vivid illustrations, The Day Saida Arrived demonstrates the power of language to build bonds beyond borders. Printed on FSC-certified paper with vegetable-based inks." -- publisher

Beautiful Life Cross Group

My Favorite Memories by Sepideh Sarihi, illustrated by Julie Volk

A young girl is moving to a new country, and there's so much that she wants to bring: an aquarium, a pear tree, her best friend, the ocean. As she moves through the list of the things she loves, she comes to understand that while we cannot always carry things with us physically--maybe they can travel with us in other ways.

Elsewhere Editions, an imprint of Brooklyn’s Archipelago Books, translates picture books from a growing range of countries. As they continue to expand, we look forward to seeing more titles with BIPOC representation. 

Headquartered in Brooklyn, Enchanted Lion Books publishes a wide selection of both English language and translated picture books by authors from all over the world. Some translated favorites with BIPOC representation include Kaya Doi’s Chirri & Chirra series (Japanese), Jorge Luján’s Seven Pablos (Spanish), and Lee Juck’s upcoming One Day (Korean).

One Day by Lee Juck, illustrated by Kim Seung-Youn 

A boy's grandfather goes away suddenly, never to return. How could he leave just like that, without even saying goodbye? His smell remains in his sweater, and his shoes wait to be worn, but he is nowhere to be found. As the boy looks and wonders, a refrain runs through his mind, Grandpa is gone. The boy lingers in the midst of his grandfather's things, to feel him and remember, but also as a way of beginning to say goodbye. There in the quiet, the boy begins to imagine his Grandfather returning to the planets and stars, the faraway home from which he must have come.

Based in the United Kingdom, Lantana Publishing strives to publish children’s literature by and for under-represented populations. Picture books with BIPOC representation currently include Nadine Kadaan’s Tomorrow (Arabic) with more on the way!

Tiny Owl is based in the United Kingdom and originally focused on translations of Iranian children’s books. They’ve currently expanded to offer picture books with diverse representation from a wider range of countries. Must reads include Ahmadreza Ahmadi’s Alive Again (Persian) and Ali Seidabadi’s Bijan & Manije (Persian).

Alive Again by Ahmadreza Ahmadi, illustrated by Nahid Kazemi

When the blossom falls from the trees, a little boy wonders, will it come back? And when the rain stops, is it gone forever? How do we find that grain of hope that good things might return? The little boy’s questions are answered as spring, once again, brings blossom to the world and rain pours down from the sky. This philosophical poem explores questions about the cycles of life and creates hope that good things will come once again.

Bijan & Manije by Ali Seidabadi

The story of Bijan and Manije is one of the ancient epic stories of Shahnameh (Book of Kings). Ferdowsi, the 10th century Persian poet, gathered the historical stories and myths of Persia in the form of poetry in Shahnameh. The Book of Kings was traditionally the base of Pardekhani, a type of storytelling for the public where illustrations were made on large canvases and a narrator read the poems to the audience in coffeehouses and streets.

Also based in Brooklyn, Restless Books’ imprint Yonder publishes children and young adult books in translation from a growing range of international authors. Titles with diverse characters include The Mermaid in the Bathtub (Hebrew) by Nurit Zarchi and Rutu Modan and Daniel and Ismail (Spanish) by Juan Pablo Iglesias.

The Mermaid in the Bathtub by Nurit Zarchi, illustrated by Rutu Modan

One day, a resolutely ordinary young man named Mr. Whatwilltheysay returns home to find Grain-of-Sand, a mermaid, waiting for him in his favorite armchair. Despite his objections, the two embark on a series of very watery adventures as he tries to get rid of her. But ultimately the thought of being seen with half a fish is simply too much for Mr. Whatwilltheysay to bear--what would people say? So broken-hearted Grain-of-Sand returns to the sea in his bathtub, leaving Mr. Whatwilltheysay to resume his pedestrian existence. Mr. Whatwilltheysay soon finds that his beloved landlubber life, however, lacks the splash and shimmer (and bathtub) of his good times with Grain-of-Sand--and acting against all his instincts, he sets off to sea to find her.

Daniel and Ismail / Daniel ve-Ismaʼil / Dānyīl wa-Ismā’īl


by Juan Pablo Iglesias and Alex Peris

"A one-of-a-kind, uplifting picture book about a Jewish boy and a Palestinian boy who bond on the soccer field—translated into English, Hebrew, and Arabic. Daniel and Ismail, one Jewish and the other Palestinian, don’t know each other yet, but they have more in common than they know. They live in the same city and have the same birthday, and this year they get the same presents: a traditional scarf—for Daniel a tallit and for Ismail a keffiyeh—and a soccer ball. Taking their gifts out for a spin, they meet by chance on a soccer field, and they soon begin to play together and show off the tricks they can do. They get so absorbed in the fun that they lose track of time and mix up their gifts: Daniel picks up Ismail's keffiyeh and Ismail takes Daniel's tallit. When they get home and discover their mistake, their parents are shocked and angry, asking the boys if they realize who wears those things. That night, Daniel and Ismail have nightmares about what they have seen on the news and heard from adults about the other group. But the next day, they find each other in the park and get back to what really matters: having fun and playing the game they both love. Daniel and Ismail is a remarkable multilingual picture book that confronts the very adult conflicts that kids around the world face, and shows us that different cultures, religions, societies, and languages can all share the same page." -- publisher

Cross Group

Many of the cover images on this site are from Google Books.
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